Three Ailey Graces: Boykin, Graf, and Smallwood
“Alvin used to call the dancers gods and goddesses—when we did something right,” says Judith Jamison, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. During her performing career, Jamison certainly exuded a goddess-like aura. It isn’t a stretch, then, to see that the dancers she has hired and coached look like they’re doing something more than right. You can count on them to turn the stage into their own Valhalla. Three of those goddesses grace the stage with their own individual styles: Hope Boykin, Alicia J. Graf, and Dwana Adiaha Smallwood. Representing Ailey’s anti-cookie cutter ethos, they look, think, and dance differently. But they all share the Ailey vision that Jamison says demands “technique, commitment, courage, power, and lust for life.”
When she dances, Hope Boykin feels every step. She can act as a one-person artillery unit onstage, hurling her body like a cannonball, but in Jamison’s new Reminiscin’, she exudes a softer, more emotional side. First cast in the central duet with Clifton Brown, her deeply visceral performance moved some audience members to tears.
Boykin’s mother swears that her 4-year-old daughter exited the theater ferociously fanning herself after seeing her first Ailey performance in Durham, North Carolina. Mom saw it as a sign. (She was right.) Today, Boykin is never happier than when she’s the pivotal girl smack dab at the head of the wedge of dancers in the opening section of Ailey’s Revelations.
“Hope is like quicksilver,” says Jamison. “She’s fast on her feet, has a true sense of musicality, is a good turner, and is very conscious of where her body is in space,” adds Jamison, pointing out that too many dancers fling themselves around without awareness. Boykin developed that spatial sensitivity as a youngster, taking dance classes and competing in state-wide gymnastics on the vault and floor exercise routines. But dance won out, especially when the proximity of the American Dance Festival allowed her to meet and study with Tally Beatty, Donald McKayle, Ronald K. Brown, and Pearl Primus.
Because of Boykin’s full-figured body, some teachers tried to steer her away from dance. “People did tell me not to dance, and I am OK with being the poster girl for dancers with unconventional bodies,” says Boykin. “I never realized I was unconventional,” she adds. Joan Myers Brown, founder and director of Philadanco, believed in her talent, but wouldn’t let her perform until she got her weight down. (Eventually she became a powerhouse performer and won a “Bessie” award in 1998 for her work with Philadanco). For those passionate dancers whose bodies don’t fit the “norm,” Boykin says, “Look at Hope and say, ‘I have hope. It didn’t stop her and it won’t stop me.’ ”
Since joining the Ailey company in 2000, Boykin’s irrepressible dancing has stood out for her bittersweet sassiness in Ailey’s Blues Suite and her unfettered rage in Ulysses Dove’s Vespers. Offstage, she also teaches and choreographs. Last year Ailey premiered Acceptance in Surrender, a collaborative work choreographed by Boykin, Abdur-Rahim Jackson, and her closest friend, Matthew Rushing. “She’s a one-woman beehive,” says rehearsal director Ronni Favors. “It’s all about her love of dance.”
When Alicia J. Graf enters the stage, you can’t miss her. With a single battement a la seconde, she hits the audience a la ka-boom. The paradox of her 5’10” frame (in bare, Pavlova-arched feet) and her vulnerable face makes her mesmerizing. “Alicia came to us already assembled,” says Jamison, referring to Graf’s former ballerina status with Dance Theatre of Harlem. “But she still has to learn her Ailey chops.”
Graf’s mother ran a modeling school in Columbia, Maryland and enrolled her daughter in modern and ballet classes at the age of 3. Graf’s great aunt, Fan Bakst (a niece of the great Ballets Russes designer Léon Bakst), was a dance critic who sent her publicity photos of dancers like Jamison, Virginia Johnson, and Cynthia Gregory—tall women she could emulate. After several summer intensives at the School of American Ballet and American Ballet Theatre school, the gifted teenager joined Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1996. Graf literally became the DTH poster girl when a photo advertisement featuring her eye-popping line in Arthur Mitchell’s Manifestations was plastered all over the New York subway cars. Then, after a performance at the Kennedy Center in 1999, her ankle and knee swelled up, and her career came crashing down.
When physical therapy and arthroscopic surgery didn’t alleviate the cartilage damage, Graf was left with psychic trauma. “I had no idea what my other interests or talents were, and I had no confidence I would find those things and enjoy my life from here on,” says Graf. She cried nonstop for weeks. And then one morning, an epiphany: “I realized, ‘This is good, because I can start from scratch. Outside of the dance world, nobody knows who I am.’ ” She enrolled at Columbia University, graduated with a major in history, and interned with a financial firm (see “Dance Matters,” Jan. 2004). With her focus on Wall Street, Graf nonetheless felt strong enough to try Milton Myer’s Horton technique class. He counseled her to consider an Ailey career and introduced her to Jamison.
Making the Ailey transition last year was challenging. “People in the dance world knew me from DTH and I was afraid they would scrutinize me. I was really nervous coming into the City Center season,” says Graf, giving the impression that she still hasn’t fully comprehended her talent. But in a marketing director’s dream, Graf’s photo landed on the front page of The New York Times, with a rave review of her performance by chief dance critic John Rockwell. He called her steamy performance in Jamison’s Reminiscin’ “an instant star turn” that “stopped the show.” This season, Graf is learning John Butler’s Portrait of Billie, coached by Carmen de Lavallade. Sounds like a hot ticket.
In rare fashion, Dwana Adiaha Smallwood combines earthiness with an ethereal quality. Her presence demonstrates a grounded authority, but her jump contains the grace and spring of a gazelle. She can handle Rennie Harris’ pop and lock moves in Love Stories and then melt into a poetic liquidity in Jamison’s Hymn. Smallwood has often been compared to Jamison. “I think it’s crazy,” says Smallwood. “People compare for the obvious reasons—the short hair, the dark skin, the long neck. It’s a heavy weight to carry, but it’s also a blessing.”
Smallwood, born and raised in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, studied African dance, modern, jazz, and ballet from age 3. During her freshman year at the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts, she showed up at a dance competition wearing a white leotard and long white skirt. When told she resembled Jamison, Smallwood’s reply was, “Who’s that?” Once directed to The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, she says, “Watching videotapes became an everyday addiction. That’s how I became familiar with the company. Judith Jamison was here and I said, ‘Here I come.’ ”
Comparisons aside, Smallwood is very much her own dancer—down to her well-rounded versatility (classical to hip hop) and a quirky comic timing. “Dwana is unique unto herself,” says Jamison. “She has her own movement inflections and idiosyncrasies. She claims dances to be her own; she imbeds herself in the movement.” Smallwood admits that sometimes she goes overboard. At a recent rehearsal of Twyla Tharp’s Golden Section, Shelley Washington, the former Tharp dancer who staged the ballet, told her, “That was divine, Dwana. But it’s the wrong step, and the count is on 8.”
Smallwood is one of those rare dancers for whom energy is never a problem—and never has been since she began her high school days getting up at six and completing a marathon schedule that included acting lessons, Girl Scouts, tennis, and track practice. “I know how to manage my time so I’m alive—not just present, but really alive,” says Smallwood, aiming a Bed-Stuy glare with those enormous don’t-mess-with-me eyes. “Dance is alive. It’s gotta be oozin’ out of you.”
That fearlessness gives her the courage to take on Jamison’s signature solo Cry and own it. (She’s performed the role for a decade—longer than anyone except Jamison). “You can’t hold back, you can’t be afraid of your audience, afraid of the steps, the ballet, the history of the ballet,” says Smallwood. “This is the story and this is how it’s told. If you don’t like it, don’t listen.”
In the Ailey company tradition, says Jamison, “Alvin is the ancestor, and I am the mother.” The three women profiled here often work in the studio with Jamison, but Ailey’s tragically premature death in 1989 deprived them of face-to-face time with the legendary choreographer. For the Ailey dancers, however, a spiritual osmosis always seems to remain in play. By dancing Ailey’s ballets, those who know the man only from black-and-white films and cherished stories imbibe his essence through his choreography. Ailey revered women and knew how to choreograph for them. If anyone is placing bets, odds are that he’d be thrilled with all three of these goddesses.
Joseph Carman is a Contributing Editor to Dance Magazine and the author of Round About the Ballet (Limelight Editions).
Thirty years ago, U.S. Joint Resolution 131, introduced by congressman John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Alphonse D'Amato (R-NY), and signed into law by President G. W. Bush declared:
"Whereas the multifaceted art form of tap dancing is a manifestation of the cultural heritage of our Nation...
Whereas tap dancing is a joyful and powerful aesthetic force providing a source of enjoyment and an outlet for creativity and self-expression...
Whereas it is in the best interest of the people of our Nation to preserve, promote, and celebrate this uniquely American art form...
Whereas May 25, as the anniversary of the birth of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is an appropriate day on which to refocus the attention of the Nation on American tap dancing: Now therefore, be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress that May 25, 1989, be designated "National Tap Dance Day."
Happy National Tap Dance Day!
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Over the past 15 years, Gesel Mason has asked 11 choreographers—including legends like Donald McKayle, David Roussève, Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Rennie Harris and Kyle Abraham—to teach her a solo. She's performed up to seven of them in one evening for her project No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers.
Now, Mason is repackaging the essence of this work into a digital archive. This online offering shares the knowledge of a few with many, and considers how dance can live on as those who create it get older.
When a musical prepares to make the transfer from a smaller, lesser-known venue to Broadway (where theaters hold 500-plus seats), often there's a collective intake of breath from all involved. After all, a bigger house means more tickets to sell in order to stay in the black, and sometimes shows with even the most tenacious fan bases can't quite navigate such a jump. But what about the transfer from stage…to screen? Is Broadway ready to be consumed from the comfort of your couch?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
Daphne Lee was dancing with Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee, when she received two difficult pieces of news: Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, and her father had Parkinson's disease, affecting his mobility and mental faculties.
The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."
Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.
Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).
But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.
I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
—Andrea, New York, NY
When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.